Text and photographs by Izabella Demavlys.
Last year I made a huge shift from fashion photography towards documentary work. After years of struggling and trying to find my voice within fashion, I suddenly realized that it was not my calling. My fashion work couldn’t engage the viewers in any way. It was not changing any perspectives or behaviors, inspiring or making any meaningful points.
In the fall of 2009 I made the drastic decision to travel to Pakistan to meet women whom had survived brutal Acid attacks. After having been involved in the fashion world for years, listening and observing people ideas about beauty, I went to Pakistan in search for my own vision of what that word really meant. My viewpoint being that beauty isn’t merely about appearance, but the triumph of personal struggles, the radiation of inner strength and accomplishments throughout life.
Lately I’ve been challenged with a lot of questions about my work. My introverted personality combined with the difficulty of expressing my artistic feelings aloud is in direct contrast with the work I am doing today. Being a photographer focusing on sensitive subject matter, one needs to not only visually express oneself in a remarkable way, but also be able to articulate their viewpoints verbally and in writing. During my fashion years I could hide behind beautiful images and not being forced to say a word. Today I have to be able to speak openly about my work.
“I was going around in circles for many years making meaningless work. Meaningless and uninspiring for others and for myself. When I saw a story about a young girl, an acid burn victim working as a beautician in Pakistan last year, I immediately thought, “this is a person I need to meet”. I thought this woman stood for everything I wanted to express with my work.”
In recent years we have seen more acid attacks being brought to our attention. Acid attacks are a common phenomenon in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh as well as other countries in South Asia. Stories about acid attacks have also recently surfaced in England. Last year in Pakistan the government introduced the, Pakistan Acid Prevention Bill, which will bring harder convictions on the attackers and regulations on the sale of acid.
The attacker is usually a family member; an abusive husband, relatives seeking revenge or the cause could be a refused marriage proposal. In other cases, attackers are no more than strangers on the street. Most of the attacks are done on women and if they are not killed, they are scarred mentally and physically for life.
Local as well as international NGO’s offer these women reconstructive surgery, therapy and psychological help. But the amount of victims exceeds the amount of help offered.
The first acid burn victim I met in Pakistan was Saira. I didn’t know where to look at first. At first I was ashamed of just wanting to stare at her, because it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before in real life, but after being accustomed to her scarred face, I embraced her courage. Watching her body language in communication with translators, I felt the radiation of her inner beauty.
An interviewer asked me recently, challenging my idea of these women being an inspiration to me and trying to convey that to others, “But don’t you think they see themselves as victims? I would be furiously bitter and angry.” Of course they see themselves as victims and I’m not trying to take that away from them. But what I also want to emphasize is; how are these women dealing with life today? Are they still ashamed? And are they still bitter?
Would you be bitter for the rest of your life, or would you at some point come to terms with it, determined to move forward and focus on the present and future?
In a world where beauty is mostly seen as something we carry upon our faces, how would you come to terms with living with a severely scarred face for the rest of your life?
“I cannot possibly think of getting married now. I could not face an abusive husband. I don’t want people to pity me. Right now I want to stand on my own feet and earn a living. Every person wishes that he or she is beautiful but in my view, your face is not everything. Real beauty lies inside a person, not outside.”
Saira, acid burn victim, The National, June 1, 2009
Some of the younger victims were still very traumatized by the attacks. Raffat, another burn victim that I photographed was only seventeen. Attacked by her own cousin after refusing to marry him, he took revenge on her while she was asleep only nine days before her wedding. At first she was calm but her fragile facade broke down when we sat down to talk about the night of the attack. I wish that she one day becomes as brave as Saira and eventually finds her way to deal with the horrifying situation that changed her life.
Most of these women showed me enormous amounts of strength and a willingness to keep on living. This is something we can all learn a great deal from. Some people go trough tremendous amounts of pain in their lives and still carry on. With awareness of current events and stories like these, we can hopefully learn to embrace our own lives and become more grateful. Common pettiness and complaints about one’s own cushy life is something I cannot tolerate after meeting with these women.
Moving back to my thoughts on beauty.
The Western world’s idea about beauty that I believe a lot of women struggle with is this: instead of accepting oneself, becoming a spiritually enriched person through meaningful activity, work and good health, a lot women often focus on shallower pursuits, especially younger women. How many TV-shows have we seen where young women fiercely compete in becoming supermodels? Everyone wants to be beautiful, like Saira mentioned before, but without being able to reflect anything from the inside. What do you have then?
In the end, who have you inspired and with what? What have you accomplished? Is being pretty an accomplishment?
My travels to Pakistan were not merely a shift towards documentary work, or a shift towards more understanding and empathy for other peoples’ circumstances of life. It was also a beginning towards a life lesson in self-expression, which will not only come through my photographs but also in expressing emotion through my language and voice.
This lesson in communication and expression is one that my work has required me to acknowledge, nourish and evolve with both personally and professionally.
Please visit Izabella Demavlys homepage.